DELMORE SCHWARTZ: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: The Life of an American Poet

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KIRKUS REVIEW

To know you is a calamity,"" a college friend once told Delmore Schwartz--but not nearly as great a one as being him. Yet even in his last mad years, Schwartz retained a number of concerned albeit battered friends, most of them famous now themselves, and it's just this availability of reference and remembrance that seems to have motivated this much-touted but curiously toneless and tired biography. Schwartz' talent for a highly intelligent, critical synthesis of the Modernist mode in literature and an American immigrant authenticity was what made his first appearances in print in the Thirties a legitimate cause for notice. In Dreams Begin Responsibility, his first book, garnered the sort of Messiah-hungry response a momentarily stalled culture is all too ready to grant--and if Schwartz' career as both writer and man went downhill from there, some of the blame surely must be assigned to the quivering attention forever at his back. Using a wealth of Unpublished manuscripts, all autobiographical, Atlas has catalogued Schwartz' anxiety at being this sort of literary point-man; unfortunately, the stories and poems themselves are given only the lightest critical dusting. Perhaps they were secondary to the life--Schwartz was the critic as poet, not vice versa--but the works lose their identity in the literary-sociological perspective. Despite some dubious professions of faith, Atlas is detached to the point of sometimes appearing to hold Schwartz at the end of two stiffened fingers; the ending of the book is so abrupt you get the feeling Atlas just got sick of poor Delmore and was happy to be done with him. Then why this book in the first place? Though slogging through misery lifelong, Schwartz was until his death almost continually employed as a professor at quality schools; his work constantly appeared in the Partisan Review and other primary intellectual ducts; he won the big awards and was invited to deliver the big lectures. His was a different ""life of an American poet"" than Hart Crane's or William Carlos Williams' or Walt Whitman's--Schwartz had the acclaim and the Establishment approval; this book seems like the final payment on that installment plan. But, ironically, it's friend Bellow's rendering of Schwartz' poor, burdened soul in Humboldt's Gift that comes off more vivid and summating than does this official last canonization with its muddle of scrupulosities and wishy-washy commitment.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1977
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux